Stress Awareness Month | When does work-related stress become a problem?

When does work-related stress become a problem?

April is Stress Awareness Month, and a time to reflect on the impacts of stress and worry in our lives.

These may be some of the most stressful and worrisome times many people have ever experienced. The effects of the cost-of-living crisis, the Russian-Ukraine war and Brexit have rolled into one giant poly-crisis in recent months, creating alarming levels of anxiety, stress and burnout among the workforce.

At the same time, we're juggling the every job-related stress we've always encountered. It could be unexpected extra workload when a colleague is off sick or feeling the pressure to hit an ambitious KPI before the end of the month.

But while these latter examples might temporarily spur us on to go the extra mile at work, there’s only so much strain the mind can take before it starts to have a negative impact.

So how can we spot the signs our work-related stresses are manageable and when they are hindering our life?

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In this feature, Clare Price, Director of Clinical Services at Onebright, a mental health care provider, explains more...

We all worry. It is a natural phenomenon. Even so, at what point do experts consider worrying a problem? If we can’t actively work past it and it stops us from living the life we want to live, this is where worrying can impact mental health and disrupt someone’s quality of life. When we find ourselves in a state of ongoing uncertainty and things continue to be unpredictable, this can lead to ‘unique worries’ and concerns which can be specific to an individual or to a group of individuals.

The good news is that human beings have a fantastic ability to think about the future and future events. Generally, thinking ahead means we can anticipate obstacles, which allows us to plan, come up with solutions and meet our goals. Let’s think about something simple to illustrate this, such as getting to work on time. By thinking ahead, we can plan our journey, consider any obstacles that may make us late for work, and plan an alternative route or adjust our set-off time to allow us to still make it on time.

But it is helpful to understand that thinking ahead can pose some difficulties, too. Excessive worry can drive us to catastrophise. This is where we think about worst-case scenarios, which can make us feel overly anxious and apprehensive. The emotional impact can lead to us having a lived experience of the associated symptoms of an event or outcome without the actual experience itself happening. Our bodies act as if it were a true event and gives the worry credibility and our mind can perceive the worst-case scenario as a reality.

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Worrying often moves us past the point of active problem-solving. It becomes an obstacle to effective functioning. It can be helpful to understand and be able to distinguish between the two different kinds of worry: real and hypothetical.

Real worries are about real problems that are affecting you right now. For example: “my mother is unwell, and I need to care for her.” Hypothetical worries don’t currently exist but might happen in the future, and they’re often the ones where we go to the worst-case scenario. For example: “what will I do if I lose my job and end up homeless?”

A chain of thoughts leads to a spiral into more and more ‘catastrophic’ thinking. Sometimes these can take a life of their own and feel very real, which manifest into those physical experiences, creating the sense of restlessness that can make it quite uncomfortable to be in your own skin.

If you are a line manager or someone who manages people, consider watching out for signs of stress and worry in your colleagues.

The symptoms of stress

The symptoms of stress can affect all parts of someone’s life, including their emotions, behaviours, thinking ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune. We look at signs in the workplace that might indicate an employee is experiencing higher levels of stress:

  • Absence: taking an unusual amount of time off work

  • Reduced tolerance: overreacting to situations in the workplace

  • Pessimism: focusing too much on the negative aspects of the job

  • Performance issues: struggling to concentrate or complete tasks either day to day or by set deadlines

  • Isolation: reduced social skills or less interpersonal interactions with other colleagues, concerns about what others think

  • Low confidence: turning down opportunities for development or promotion or plateauing in their career

What can you do about work-related stress and worry?

You can take action if you notice yourself worrying or signpost colleagues to these tips if you notice they may be worrying:

Maintain balance: Wellbeing comes from a life with a balance of activities that you value and give you feelings of pleasure, achievement, and closeness.

Identify your worry: Is it a ‘real’ worry or a hypothetical worry? If it’s the latter, it is important to remind yourself that your mind is not focusing on a problem you can solve now and find ways to let the worry go and focus on something else.

Postpone your worry: Worry is insistent, and it can make you feel as if you have to engage with it right now. Instead, deliberately set aside time to let yourself worry and don’t worry for the rest of the day.

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Apply self-compassion: Worry can come from a place of concern. We worry about others when we care about them. Responding to our own or others' worries with kindness and compassion can make a huge difference.

Practice mindfulness: Learning and practising mindfulness can help us to notice but not engage with worrying thoughts. It helps us to let go and break free of worries by staying in the present moment, stopping them from taking hold.

It is true that we are living in uncertain times, but, uncertainty never really ends. We think it does, but the world around us never stops changing and we need to be able to adapt and adjust as a result. For some people this can be really stressful, affecting their quality of life, both personally and professionally.

If you think work-related stress and worry are a problem among your employees, there are many ways to help workers manage these feelings, including techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that can help people to overcome excessive work-related stress and worry, so it doesn’t negatively impact your mental health and body.

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